Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Christianity is not a religion...really?

“Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship.” I sometimes hear this when conversing about what it means to be a Christian. When I hear it, I often appreciate the intention of the speaker because it’s good to draw a distinction between what some mean as religion and what Christian believe.

But…I always cringe because strictly speaking it is quite proper to speak of faith in Christ as religion. But, what the Christian means by religion and what the average person on the street means is different.

For the Christian, the word “religion” is the life that one lives out of faith in God. Religion is the life that comes from seeking to live the will of God and the values of God.

This understanding comes from the way the English word translates several Greek words from the New Testament. One word is "deisdaimonia" and is used in Acts 17:22 and 25:19. This word comes from two other words: "deos" meaning awe, fear or reverence, and "daimonion" meaning demon or god. Literally the word means awe, fear, or reverence of demons or of God. Paul uses the word when he describes what he has seen in Athens. He speaks of the Athenians as “deisdaimonia,” or religious, when he refers to their “objects of worship” (Acts 17:23) and to an altar that had the inscription “to an unknown god.” Paul has chosen this word meaning “awe of god” to describe the attitude of the Athenians toward their objects of worship and the inscription, to an unknown God. “Religion” or “Religious,” in this case refers to man’s orientation of awe or reverence toward the gods or God.

In Acts 25:19, when talking to King Agrippa over the court case of Paul, Festus the then governor of Caesaria Maritima, used the word "deisdaimonia" to refer the belief of the Jews and their conflict over Paul’s message of Jesus’ resurrection. Here, religion translates "deisdaimonia" and refers to the belief of the Jewish accusers of Paul.

Another Greek word in the New Testament, is "threskeia" meaning religion or worship. It is used Acts 26:5, James 1:26 and 27. In the Acts passage, Paul uses “threskeia” and referring to the worship or belief of his former sect, the Pharisees. The Pharisaic worship or belief is a subset of the greater “belief in God” or religion that was Temple Judaism. Paul uses the word to speak of a particular belief system within a belief system.

In James "threskeia" is used in 1:26 firstly to refer to ones belief or faith in God, but then in verse 27 he uses the adjectival from "threskos," or religious, to describe the kind of behavior that belief should spawn or promote in the believer’s life namely: “to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

A third word that is translated “religion” is "eusebeo" often transated to worship, or show piety, and is found is 1 Timothy 5:4. This verb is a close neighbor to the New Testament words "eusebeia" meaning godliness or piety, and "eusebes" meaning devout, pious, godly, reverent. The word "eusebeo," a verb, describes the Christian belief of the people to whom Paul is referring. He seems to choose the verb form to describe the active belief of the Christians that should be put into action through caring for their own families.

Finally, in Hebrew 10:11, the word "leitourgeo" meaning to perform religious duties. It is the verbal form of "leitourgia" meaning religious service, ceremony, service. The writer of Hebrews speaks of the duties of the priest in the Hebrew system of Temple worship as religious. Here religion is the execution of organized traditional Jewish worship.

Today in common usage, the word religion has quite a range of meaning. Most use the word to refer to some type of belief in God or some type of traditional organized religion like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism and the like. It can also mean something that someone practices consistently and continually.

Many Christians are uncomfortable referring to their belief in Christ as simply another of one the world belief systems. As well, many Christians are uncomfortable with being called religious when this simply means being a member of a church, or a part of some sort of organized “religion.” Of course this discomfort is for good reason because Christian belief goes much deeper that simply following traditions, or holding merely intellectually to a system of believe or a code of ethics. Being a Christian involves both “head” as a way of believing, but also “heart” because being a Christian means loving God. For the Christian following the form Christianity without faith is not possible. To simply have intellectual ascent without true love for God from the heart is not true belief. That is why some have chosen to say, as in the words of Bill Hybels, “being a Christian is not a religion but a relationship.”

But is this strictly true? Is it right to say Christianity is not religion? Or is it intellectually wrong to refer to faith in Christ as a religion? No, not really, if one looks at how the writers of the New Testament thought of religion. For them religion was simply how one orients themselves toward God through faith, or worship, piety, or even idolatry. It was a serious way of acting in the world with regard to God or the gods.

For the Christian to refer to his religion or the way he or she believes about God is a mark of identity. I am a Christian. I have a religion, a way of orienting myself toward God. Christian belief is the religion where faith is a relationship with the living God through his son Jesus Christ made possible by the power from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Religion is not how we get to God or how we please God so he’ll let us into heaven, rather it is our orientation toward God and the life we live having found God, or rather, after he has found us. My religion is living relationship with God that affects every part of my life and causes me to live out the wonderful values of God. Love of God and people, joy in life because of God, forgiveness when people have wronged me, serving the needs of others, having the certain hope of spending eternity with God, not letting the evil of the world take over my life but rather pursuing a life of goodness and holiness, treating God’s creation with awe, respect and care, are all part of what it means to have belief in Christ as the religion of my life.

By all means, we need to distinguish between what “religion” means to the average person on the street and heartfelt faith in Jesus. But, to say that being a Christian is not a religion, well…you’d be on thin ice or even in error.

So, if you want, you can say, “being a Christian is not a religion, but a relationship.” It sounds nice and it even alliterates. But James, Jesus’ half brother might respond by saying:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. - James 1.27

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At 3:48 AM, Blogger Nomodiphas said...

Such clear thinking . . . and its rooted God's Word. How rare, how refreshing! KEEP IT UP!


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